I read an interesting article by Daniel Cook about some topics in game design that he was happy to have avoided in 2014. It’s a fascinating breakdown of some of the core debates in gaming. I spent a portion of my writing time last year examining several of the topics, and while I agree 100% that it’s time to stop viewing these as dichotomies with a single “correct” side, I don’t think the talking points are worn out at all. Game design requires active consideration on all levels of the concept at the same time, and I think revisiting those debates is an excellent way to practice the skill.
The first topic was the definition of “Game”. I dug into this idea specifically at least twice, and I suspect I’ll return to it again. The reason I do that isn’t because I am trying to “solve” the question, but because I want to focus on what I think is important. These can be different for every person, but if every designer needs to know what they mean when they say “I want to design a game”. Without any definition of what that is, how do you know when you’ve succeeded? I completely agree that a designer needs to be familiar with a broad range of tools. The definition isn’t a tool, it’s the blueprint. In 2015, think about what “game” means to you, and how that gives a basic form to your ideas.
The second topic was whether narrative or mechanics is more important. I think 2014 was a year of major advance on this subject. There were some major articles in the design community, like this one from the League of Gamemakers that I thought was one of the best articles of the year. That article shows that it’s a part of the same battle as Theme vs. Mechanics, a subject I wrote about again and again and again. I don’t think enough can be written about how the three are tied together. I think we are in agreement that trying to elevate one over another is a pointless exercise rooted in opinion. But the categories aren’t completely obsolete. We can reframe the discussion into how aspects of a game design reflect and support the different basic elements of theme, narrative, and mechanics. Not every part of every game can capture all three equally, so it’s important to understand where they overlap and which ones we are willing to sacrifice. The way to understand this is to go back to those debates on a small level. Are we willing to sacrifice some of the narrative in order to make the game work more smoothly, or should we be stripping out a mechanic to present a better story? The answer depends on both your opinion as a designer and the eventual opinion of players, who will decide whether you achieved the goal in the design. In 2015, decide what you think is important in the game, and figure out if the theme mechanics and narrative are present at the right levels.
The next topic was the argument between randomness and skill. Again, these are often regarded as opposites, but as with all of the topics here, the two are not measurements of the same thing. Poker is the quintessential example of how skill and luck intertwine. Good poker players have a high amount of skill at dealing with randomness. Last year, I examined ways that randomness can be incorporated in games, and took a closer look at how dice can be used to provide randomness in new ways. But the word “skill” doesn’t even appear on those pages. Honestly, it didn’t ever occur to me that the two would be exclusive. But the one way in which the debate is important is luck, which I differentiated from randomness as an issue of perception. [I probably need a post differentiating perceived skill from experience and expertise.] The debate is still active in the arena of player perception, especially as it relates to how often a player should win a game. I think everyone agrees that a 100% luck game will be won by every player an equal portion of the time. But will a 100% skill game be won by the more “skilled” player (if you could hypothetically determine that directly) 100% of the time? Does the skill rating always have an inherent tolerance? And what about games that are part skill and luck; how much impact should randomness and experience have on the win percentage? It’s clear to me that both randomness and skill have places in games, but in 2015, deciding how much they should each impact the win rate is an open subject.
The fourth topic is Realism, and its not really a debate. This section of Daniel’s article seems to be framed more towards video games, but it is still an important issue in boardgames. In video games, this manifests as a trend toward more accurate simulation of the world through graphics and physics. Yet as games approach that “ideal”, they enter a sort of Uncanny Valley, where when the physics go haywire or the graphics glitch out, the realism is completely lost (often hilariously). In board games, the measure of realism is less about the art and more about the decisions. I wrote about realism in terms of theme as a model. There are major advantages and disadvantages to using real life to guide a game design. In 2014 I ran into this from multiple sides with New Bedford, when talking to some people about their feelings about the theme. Some people felt that the issue of whaling was too sensitive to deal with in a game. Others felt that it had not gone far enough in its treatment of the whaling industry. Still others replied “it’s just a game” and the decisions and the theme were easy to separate. Ideally, I wanted give players flexibility within a framework of real effects of the industry as a whole, neither fully representational nor abstracted away. A lot of realism is how players approach a game. In 2015 it’s still important to have that conversation to decide where that balance is in each individual game.
The final topic is casual versus hardcore. Again, it’s typically discussed in terms of video games, but many board gamers make this distinction, too. Machi Koro and Love Letter seemed to be everywhere this year, pulling in all sorts of people who don’t regularly play board games. I found them both to be too light on decisions for my own taste, but does that make them bad games? No. But at the same time, a longer and more complex game like Panamax or Kanban is inherently for a different audience. People play games for all sorts of reasons, and that’s why it’s so important to find your audience. The concepts of “casual” and “hardcore” are even more useful without stereotypes, as ways of identifying your audience. Some of the most successful games of 2014 blur the line, making complex mechanics seem accessible, and bringing depth of thought to simple mechanics. In 2015, strive to identify the elements that make a game appropriate for your audience and then try to expand it.
These topics are not simply arguments that can be solved, and attempts to prove one side as “correct” are ill-formed. The best point the article makes is that it game design is full of nuance. and that you can’t break everything down into black and white categories. For each topic, Daniel Cook finds that in reality there isn’t really a divide between the categories, or a single correct interpretation. And in fact, spending the time to write an article about ignoring these game debates isn’t ignoring them at all.
We can become better about talking about games by constantly revisiting our understanding of the terms at the ends of each spectrum. Even if we see that these differences break down, many people still approach games with these ideas in mind. An important part of the design process is understanding the perspective of players who approach the game. On a personal level, we can personally move our own game designs beyond these arguments, and as game writers, it is our duty to our art to maintain the base concepts and present them as a spectrum, if we have any desire to bring in new ideas and new thinkers and grow the art.
I’m glad that I didn’t ignore these topics in 2014 and I plan to not ignore them again in 2015.